With time and practice, your teaching dog will likely amass an
impressive repertoire of cues, tricks and behaviors under stimulus
control. But everyone has to begin somewhere! And when you are
working with a new teaching dog, it’s imperative that he has a good
grasp of at least these fve behaviors.
When working a dog, I typically teach an implied stay. What this means is that when I ask a dog for a stationary position (generally sit, down or stand), it is implied to the dog that he should remain in that position until he hears his release word.
Release cues are often underestimated in the dog training community, but they are one of the frst things I teach in classes and to private clients. The release cue signifes to the dog that the exercise is over and that he is free to move about and leave the stay position. While any word can be trained as a release cue, it should be a word that is not said frequently and that rolls off of the trainer’s tongue easily. My students typically use the words “break,” “free” or “release.”
As an aside, there is one word that I never use as a release, and this is the word “okay.” While I know many trainers who do use the word “okay,” I fnd that it is used so much in daily language that many people inadvertently release their dogs from a stationary position while answering a question from somebody else in the room.
Stay is the next logical cue to teach, as it is simply about diversifying the variables going on around the dog between the stationary position cue and the release word. When teaching stay, vary the amount of time and the distance that you are traveling away from your dog before coming back to him to reward him with a small treat or a release from the exercise.
As your dog becomes more profcient at holding the stay, build up each of the four variables of training, one at a time. Ask your dog to hold the stay through these variables, only releasing using your release cue. A rock-solid stay is an essential skill for your teaching dog, and has countless applications. These can include having your dog stay at a distance while you work with a different dog, having your dog go to a mat and stay until released to get out of the way of a training session in progress, or waiting his turn (in his sit-stay, of course) while you are interviewed at your local television affliate!
The recall is one of the most important behaviors that you can teach to any dog. The ability to come when called could potentially save your dog’s life in an emergency situation, such as if he was running toward a road after a squirrel. In the case of a teaching dog, a recall may also help you to get out of a sticky situation when working with a client.
Most people only think to practice the recall from a stay position. I prefer to practice the recall in a less structured, and therefore more realistic, scenario, and through high distraction. Start by practicing recall foundations on a short leash under low distraction, and work up to practicing on a 25- to 30-foot leash under higher distraction. Eventually, you want to unclip the leash and work on a free recall in distracting areas.
Only when you have a great free recall through distracting locations can you ensure that your dog will come running any time you call. You’ll stun your students in group class when your trusty companion comes to you instead of running around the room like a banshee.
More importantly, proofng a recall can keep your working dog safe should he slip the leash or need to be called away from another dog during a meeting that is starting to look a little off. Remember: Dogs don’t generalize well. Be sure to practice recalls in environments similar to those you would use for appointments and in your classroom, and practice calling your dog out of a play session with another dog if he is going to serve as a helper/safe socializer. Don’t forget that one of the best rewards you can give your dog for coming away from a fun romp with a pal is releasing him back for more play after he gets his rewards from you!
Teaching your dog to focus on you has many benefts, especially in applications where you are working with dog-reactive dogs who may be thrown off by a dog who looks directly at them. Having a dog who automatically defaults into a “focus-stay” also means that you have the dog’s full attention, and he is waiting for the next directive that you give. Not to mention, your clients will be super impressed that you have such amazing control over your dog!
When I teach focus, I teach an assumed focus-stay. Which means that the dog focuses until he is released with whatever your release cue may be. It’s one thing to have a dog dart his eyes to you for a ﬂeeting second, and another to have a dog who has the self-control to maintain eye contact with you even through distraction.
So if you are reading this thinking, “How the heck am I going to teach my dog’s eyeballs to stay?” don’t worry. The principles of teaching a focus-stay are similar to teaching any other stay.
First, give for your focus cue. When your dog settles his gaze onto your eyes (wait him out through that stage of ﬂeeting, darting eye movements), mark the behavior and release with your release cue. Build the amount of time that your dog’s eyes settle on you from those ﬂeeting milliseconds up to one minute, always being cognizant to release the dog with your release cue. If you are utilizing a noreward marker, you can mark when your dog drops his focus.
When you’ve built your dog up to a one-minute focus-stay, begin adding distractions into your training sessions. Start with simple distractions like tapping your toe on the ground or having an assistant drop a pen a few feet away from you; always mark when your dog chooses to hold his focus instead of dropping eye contact to see what’s going on. Then gradually increase the distractions going on around your dog, eventually incorporating movement into the equation by taking a few steps forward and asking your dog to hold eye contact while you move together. (Hey, now you’re working on heel too!)
Your teaching dog will need to be able to hold focus no matter where
he is! Build this behavior in as many locations as possible, with as
many different distractions as you can think of.
Teaching a dog to kennel quietly is an important skill from early on. But while many owners make the mistake of ditching the kennel or crate altogether when their dogs are old enough to handle a bit of freedom in the house, a good dog trainer (that’s you!) knows that keeping up with kenneling is key to training a well-balanced dog!
Consistently kennel-training your teaching dog serves several purposes including:
- Giving your dog a safe space.
- Being your dog’s babysitter if you need to focus on your clients.
- Giving your dog a tangible spot to go to if you need him out of your way for a few minutes.
In short, you’ll ask your dog to kennel quietly during times when you need him to be neither seen nor heard, but may need him for a demonstration or to use as a helper in the near future. Make sure your dog can remain quiet in his own crate as well as unfamiliar ones, with you talking nearby as well as moving far away, in strangers’ homes and your classroom.
So many trainers disregard the importance of a formal heel in dog training. But formal heel isn’t just for the show ring. It’s a very important cue to teach to your teaching dog. But frst, to clear up any confusion, let’s discuss what a formal heel actually is, and what it isn’t.
If you’ve seen people walking down the street with a dog, uttering “heel” in their most commanding voice all the while choking up on the leash to keep the dog close to them…yeah, that’s not it! That’s just physically manipulating the dog to stay at your side. Heel is also not informal walking. When a dog is scooting to the left, right and center, while remaining on a loose leash, it’s just that: loose-leash walking.
A formal heel is a position more than a movement. Heel position finds the dog at your left-hand side, their right front leg and shoulder in line with your left leg, and intensely focused on you. If your left leg is stationary, the dog remains in a sit-stay in line with your leg, always gazing up to you. If your left leg is moving, the dog is moving in line with the left leg, never dropping that gaze.
Heel is not a cue that you would use for a two-mile walk. That’s a good time for loose-leash walking. Instead, heel is used to keep your dog’s focus for a short burst, and in the face of stimuli that might trigger a reaction or lead to distraction.
Why the left side? Because we live in a right-handed world! Approximately 90% of people are right-hand dominant. So we use our right hand to sign our names, shake hands with others and do all kinds of other menial tasks. Therefore, our trusty dogs should hold court on our left side. This one can be a bit tough to explain to your clients, who will be more inclined to use the hand that is stronger, and may therefore feel more natural handling on the right. But as dog training is a technical skill, the more people practice handling with their nondominant hand, the more profcient they will become.
And if you’re a lefty? Then switch it up and have your dog work on
your right-hand side.
As a caveat: Once in a while you’ll have an owner push back on this,
stating that they feel more comfortable handling a dog on a particular side. And in that case, I don’t feel that this it a total deal-breaker,
as long the owner picks one side and sticks to it.